Is Adoption Still About Trauma?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     In the past, when many of us relinquished children for adoption, not much was said about trauma, either for the birth parents or for the child. Sometimes it was said that the adoptive parents were quite sad and bereft because they had not been able to produce their “own” biological children, but it was thought that by adopting a child, that sadness and grief was all healed, immediately. Their only possible trauma would be if the child turned out not to be perfect, not to be grateful enough to than, or somehow just wasn’t what they had envisioned. If a child was adopted later than infancy, due to parents’ deaths, or due to being in an orphanage for an extended time, there was some acknowledgment that the child might have some sadness or “psychological” problems, but it was theorized that adoptive parents, being loving and supportive, and superior to birth parents, by definition, could take care of that and all would be well. If not, it must be the adoptee’s problem. No mention was ever made of birth parents’ loss or grief. After all, they had “chosen” not to raise the child, so they were either inferior, or helpless victims of circumstance, or both. If they were, in fact, deceased, they could be honored. If they were not deceased, it was sometimes decided to tell the child they were, so s/he would not ask questions about parents’ whereabouts. These lines of reasoning continued until about the mid 1960s, accepted as scientific fact. Some adoptive parents were told not to reveal that the child was adopted, while others were told to tell the child “when it’s time,” whenever that might be. These ideas were all promoted as minimizing trauma for the child and possibly for the adoptive parents, although the term trauma was not so common then.
     By the mid 1960s, sexual activity outside of marriage was becoming more common, although it had always been far more common than anyone was willing to admit. Effective contraception, and adequate access to it, was a bit behind, however. Consequently, unintended pregnancies became more common. However, acceptance of single mothers (not a word about single fathers) was not forthcoming, with the exception of some minority communities, for various reasons. Most middle-class, Anglo young women could not have brought home a baby without marriage and a father in tow, nor could they financially support a child on their own, even if they were educated. Daycare, financial assistance, medical care, and other services were non-existent or inadequate. Child support enforcement did not really exist. It was acknowledged that young women relinquishing (“giving away her baby” was a frequent way of expressing it) might be sad, but most “experts” believed that she would “get over it,” or “forget,” or that she deserved it, because she had sex before she was married. Again, there was no mention of the father, except that “he got away with it,” or “she tried to trap him,” or “he was married, so what could he do? She should have known better.”
     At the same time, adoptive parents were generally lauded for “taking in a child,” or “raising a child as their own.” Adoption agencies wielded a great deal of power, and some lied a lot, to both birth parents and adoptive parents, and ultimately to adoptees. Some of the lies were justified as “protecting” the child, or even the birth mother, from learning each other’s identity, or protecting the adoptive parents from learning the supposedly unbearable truth about their child or about the birth parents. Not only did birth parents have absolutely no say in what happened to their children, or who might adopt them, adoptive parents had very little say, either, including the fact that while they were waiting for months or even years, children were being born and still stuck in foster homes or even orphanages, sometimes even after the “match” was made, in the name of “testing,” to make sure the child was not retarded, or perhaps too dark! (This writer has personally seen letters to that effect.)
     In any event, there was no thought given to possible trauma to the child, or either set of parents. In some states, it was not legal to adopt outside of an agency, and such children were referred to as “black-market” or “grey-market” babies. Even in states, such as New Mexico, where independent adoptions have always been completely legal, some social workers and even therapists have used these terms, even to the adoptees and birth parents years later. They seemed not to have any notion of what such terminology might feel like to those parents or children. These terms imply criminal activity when there was none. Lawyers and doctors who helped in any way with non-agency adoptions were considered either shady or on the take. Reminding these people that non-agency adoptions were perfectly legal in those states, such as New Mexico, was met with skepticism. This sort of attitude continues to this day.
     During that particular era, there was occasionally a surplus of babies available for adoption, so children began to get placed at earlier ages, which seemed like a good thing for both babies and adoptive parents, to be together earlier. “Bonding” was just coming into use as a term; “attachment” was not yet in vogue. Then, as it began to be more possible for single mothers to raise children, and as those young women began keeping their children, or insisting upon some input as to who might adopt their children, agencies began to see a shortage of available babies, and so, out of this pressure, began having prospective parents compile scrapbooks about themselves, which birth mothers could see, although the idea of actually meeting each other, let alone open adoption, came along slower, and in fact, many so-called “open adoptions” even now actually mean the birth parent(s) met adoptive parents once or a few times, might or might not know their actual names, might only have contact through the agency, or could only send messages and pictures through the agency. Although these changes may mean somewhat less trauma for children and parents, it does not eliminate trauma for anyone. Some agencies still want to hold the power, and some continue to treat birth parents as not trustworthy. Some do try to pressure women into relinquishing, or prospective adoptive parents into taking a child with whom they are not comfortable for whatever reason. Foster agencies, whether state systems or private agencies, sometimes place children without giving foster or adoptive parents adequate information, training, or resources to do their best for the children and themselves. Children have become a commodity, even though it’s illegal to actually sell children. Looking for a child to adopt on the Internet smacks of commerce, no matter how it’s justified. Any child who is available for adoption once they have been born, let alone later, has experienced trauma. A parent is unable to raise the child, which indicates some type of trauma or loss for both child and birth parent. Adoptive parents may not really understand this, and may be told that if they “attach” properly, the child will forget birth parents and think only of the adoptive parents, which isn’t true, but leaves a lot of well-meaning adoptive parents feeling that they must be inadequate, or else the child will forget birth parents and just be happy and grateful to adoptive parents.
     In the latest issue of AAC’s Decree, reprinted in this newsletter, is an article by a young woman who relinquished her baby, through an agency, in an open adoption, less than two years ago. It is honestly and thoughtfully written, and the woman is to be commended for her courage in writing it in detail and being open about her experience and her feelings. She was clearly desperate at finding she was pregnant; she clearly wanted the best for child, her other children, and herself; she was also clearly manipulated by the adoption agency. It does seem to be a truly open adoption, in which she does get to have real contact with her child. She shares her ongoing loss and trauma in eloquent terms, without self-pity. She has, in fact, “gone on with her life,” as so many of us were told to do, even 50 or more years ago. There are those who will say she made her decision and should just stick with it and not have regrets. There are also countless birth parents who will read her story in tears and relive their own losses again, no matter what the outcome has been of their own relinquishment. There are adoptive parents who will read it and think of their children’s birth parents, or if in contact with them, perhaps discuss the article together. There are adoptees who will read it and wonder about the rest of the details of their own story, or what their birth parents think and feel now, years later. One hopes there are adoption workers at every level who will read it and re-evaluate their own policies, practices, and attitudes.
     Is adoption still about trauma? Yes, it is, and we might be better off to acknowledge that and do whatever we can to minimize that trauma, through our attitudes, laws, policies, through ongoing contact whenever possible, and by seeing adoption as a way to minimize trauma for all involved, rather than try to glorify it as a miracle, or as “this baby was meant for the adoptive parents.” Was the birth mother meant to get pregnant, be unable to raise her child, and have to relinquish that child? Was the child meant to be taken from his birth mother and placed with strangers? Were the adoptive parents meant to infertile for whatever reason, or not have a child of the sex of this child, or just to adopt several children? Was an adoption agency meant to control all this? How high-handed to think we know what the universe wishes for any of the people involved in adoptions! Yes, adoption can be a wonderful possibility for many people. Yes, it needs to be legal and regulated. People should not be manipulated, taken advantage of psychologically or financially, nor blamed nor denigrated. Trauma associated with adoption certainly ought to be minimized, but let us not try to fool ourselves and others into believing it can truly be eliminated.

Excerpted from the January 2015 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2015 Operation Identity